50-odd yards long: Introducing the Showman’s Quarter of Glasgow

October 16, 2010
October 16, 2010 Mitch Miller

50-odd yards long: Introducing the Showman’s Quarter of Glasgow

… further in the city, in the Bridgeton area of the city they’re driving the new M74, it’s coming through and it’s going right through a number of showman’s yards.  Some are privately owned, some are rented from private landlords and some are owned by the Council Corporation…eh, Glasgow Corporation.  What’s going to happen to… these yards I have absolutely no idea.

I have recently been going through, in painstaking detail, the process of making the Backcauseway drawing of the titular showman’s yard in Glasgow, but it occurs that I may be assuming a little too much knowledge on the part of my audience (whoever they might be, and indeed, if they even exist) as to what a showman’s yard is. Backcauseway is just one of around 54 located in the city of Glasgow and environs – apparently the largest concentration of travelling entertainers in Europe, according to Dr Elizabeth Jordan of Edinburgh University, although as she would no doubt cheerfully admit, figures on travellers of any stripe tend to lack statistical robustness. Suffice to say, around 3-4,000 of us live amidst a population of just under a million  -not a huge number of people, but enough to comprise the largest single minority group in the schools of the East End, according to the Glasgow City Council Education Service.

Although some are now house bound the majority still live on the winter yards, or grounds, they would traditionally return to at the end of the travelling season. For at least 150 years the majority of Showpeople have preferred to site their winter grounds in Glasgow as opposed to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, or Dundee.

Glasgow: Capital City of Showbusiness

Although there is the ground at Craigmillar (where I was born) and at the ‘Fun City’ on Portobello beach, the capital has little available space for other development. Land is dear and ‘NIMBYism’ powerful in a world Heritage Site. Aberdeen does have its own shoreside carnival, there are grounds in Stirling and West Lothian, and Wellahome in Carlisle functions as a winter refuge for many of the Border travellers, but the demographics are weighted substantially, conclusively towards Glasgow. Positioned between Highlands, Lowlands and borders, the city gives easy access to north and south and ensures Showpeople are not too far, nor too near, their public. Glasgow is big enough to be lost in, convenient to get to, full of amenities and above all, abundant in derelict, empty space to acquire, clean up, and occupy. And, given the city’s developmental history, the eastern and southern suburbs proved the most bountiful source of brownbelt; land was cheap, developers were disinterested and the presence of these families largely overlooked. Glasgow people are for the most part, tolerant of and friendly to Showpeople which is why most of those I know regard Glasgow as home to an extent they would rarely feel elsewhere.

There is evidence, such as census records, the profusion of carnivals and winter gardens, and even plans for building cinemas, such as Green’s combined playhouse, filmhouse and carnival ground on Whitevale street, that Glasgow was in regular use as a base by Showpeople since the late  18th century, and had by the 1900s, become the ‘Showman’s Capital’.  This was based on two very powerful, antipathetic forces; Presbyterian respectability took against permanent theatres, and confined all such entertainments to the travelling ‘geggie’ shows in fair days, while the mercantile and industrial expansion of the city swelled the populace, worked them hard, and made them hungry for respite and entertainment. The geggies that visited The Green during Glasgow fair helped sate some of this desire and elevated the importance of both the fair and its location. A number of other, smaller fairs were held throughout Glasgow – within what would become the boundaries of its tramlines, with the east end of the city being home to a number of regular carnivals.  This meant there was always a transient population of Travelling Showpeople coming in and out of the city, but the community really grew as a ‘fixture’ of Glasgow life during the fin de siècle of the 1890s, when families sought to set down more permanent stakes in the vibrant entertainment culture of the city (theatres and music halls had by this point, got past the prohibitions of Kirk and Chapel). Showground families acquired, or leased patches of land and opened semi-permanent ‘carnivals’, precursors to the great Corporation Carnival at Christmas, around Whitevale, the Gallowgate and the Tron.

The links to music hall were strong, but fluid. The Britannia Panopticon, the world’s oldest surviving music hall incorporated a carnival, as did many music halls and it drew performers who were, like my Grandfather Joe Biddall, travelling show and circus people taking to the stage during the winter season. Not far away from the Panopticon was the Vinegar Hill Carnival, which incorporated a Showman’s yard, and near that, the first Playhouse purchased by the Greens, where they could screen films inside, and entice customers into the stalls and shows in the carnival outside on entering or leaving the show.

Glasgow’s position as the largest city in Scotland, centre of a near-conurbation of satellite towns and villages connected by its tramlines, meant that Showpeople could follow a carnival circuit that never left its environs -‘the Tramline Traveller’ became a phenomenon of the late nineteenth century who survived until the 1970s – after trams themselves disappeared, as Marcel Morrison related. ‘We used to say they never left the tram-lines if you follow me.  You know, Airdrie, Coatbridge; the trams went out that far.  You could get a living just by travelling in that area because the people’s here.’

My mother was one such Traveller – my Dad travelled the Borders, an equally fixed, but rural route. But wherever you travelled, when village greens were frosted over and the weather generally inclement, you had to find some place to winter. And you wanted to do it together, in touch with your own kind, who you had worked alongside, taken your leisure with, and married for generations. Thus, ‘The Showman’s Quarter’ was born.

As the century wore on, showpeople found themselves drawn to Glasgow more and more, and at Mosshouse, Shettleston and Carntyne, Showpeople established much more permanent yards and sites that they returned to, year on year. The profusion of brown belt in Glasgow provided an ideal environment for parking up wagons and lorries, and the community steadily grew in size.

Parrallel Lives

Residents of a winter yard collaborate to park up loads coming in for the winter.

The adventurous – or lost- tourist who stepped off a train at Dalmarnock station would find themselves in the populous heart of this quarter, which is, otherwise (and by no means coincidentally) almost entirely depopulated of non travellers (known as ‘flatties’ in the parlance). Once a vibrant working class community, Dalmarnock is a scrubby steppeland of scrap-yards, depots, abandoned lots, cheap mobile snack bars, sheds and warehouses. A few sandstone tenements still stand, but most are derelict or cleared away into tumuli of rubble. This is a place to visit for cheap bottled gas, lorry repairs or to hire a van, but not to live in, or enjoy. And yet some people do. Nestled among the warehouses and lots of Swanston Street, a long thoroughfare that curls along the rail-link to Glasgow city centre is the warren of around 20 or so walled yards where showpeople live. If our tourist were to follow Swanston Street eastwards, skirting the brick walls that mark out each lot, they would soon find unexpected signs of life and community. Type ‘Swanston Street’ into Google Earth, zoom in close, and you will see the patterns of oblongs and lozenge shapes of the lorries, wagons and chalets, too intricately laid out to just be parked up vehicles.

The Backcauseway drawing shows a yard outside of Dalmarnock, but its features are typical of the ‘grounds’ here. Almost all yards have a gate, which opens out onto gravel or tarmac that offers hard standing for the trailers, static mobile homes and the lorries that pull them. They would probably not be especially surprised at the sight of one caravan park, but a few steps after passing this first gate they would come across another, and another, and then another along the length of the street. By this time curiosity might be altogether too much. Should they step onto the yard (and were not challenged by one of the ever-wary residents) and crunch across the chippy stones they would find some fine examples of urban surrealism; fibreglass Rudolph the reindeers with chipped red noses, miniature waltzer cars, perhaps a dodgem stripped and marked out for repainting. This is where fairground gear comes to rest for the winter, after long months spinning and swirling red-cheeked kids or incubating the pink candy floss they stuff into their mouths.

True to the nomadic nature of its residents, the quarter is ‘exploded’, spread and disaggregated into the margins of the suburbs, finding security and succour in Glasgow’s unwanted corners – as well as Dalmarnock you can look in parts of Govan, Whiteinch, Shettleston, Pollokshields or Carnytne. Look hard: these tiny enclaves tend to go unnoticed (and the residents like it that way), but as with the Chinatown of New York or the ghetto of Prague the Showman’s quarter is signalled by certain accoutrements and amenities that define the community – not kosher butchers but the stuff of fairs, cuddly toys, fruit machines, tyres, engine parts for lorries, red or white diesel to run generators and lorries. Look for scrap-yards and machine shops, wholesale cash and carries specialising in stuffed toys, work-sheds by the railway, dealers in spare parts or bottled gas or pitches for mobile snack bars and you will invariably find Travellers nearby, who refine this raw fuel through their gifts and acumen into the amusements at small town fairs and galas.

This plug-ugly architecture of prefabs and depots create a post-industrial landscape most will pass through quickly and without regret. It is not grand, or emblematic or even remotely civic; the quarter generally has a private clandestine feel – for who comes to such places unless they want something specific, or a name to ask for?  No one stays in such places. Except, somewhat paradoxically, the travellers, who otherwise stay so fleetingly in those places most people do see as desirable. But the attraction seems to lie in the peace and quiet such ugly surroundings has guaranteed. Showpeople are, as a rule, less concerned with the exterior; the interior of the wagon (a four wheeled trailer adapted for long service on winding Scottish roads) or trailer (anything on two wheels) or chalet (a large mobile home that moves only rarely, used as a home base) and are carefully maintained and decorated inside. Wealth and respectability was always traditionally displayed through Crown derby or Royal Doulton Porcelain, bucolic statuettes as produced in the Dux workshops of Prague, and almost always fine-crystal and cut glass.  They are moving palaces, giant shells for impossibly delicate and decorative keepsakes, and almost always scrupulously, clinically clean.

The yards give the feeling of a small village that has been fragmented and split up into pockets and corners of the city – writing of English Showpeople, Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive referred to the fair as a ‘village on wheels’ and it is hard to better such a definition, except in Glasgow you could also say it is a‘city within a city’, not unlike Neil Gaiman’s underground London in Neverwhere. It is an enclosed, insular world that follows its own concerns and doings in parallel to the business of the greater city that envelops it. Everyone has relations on another ground elsewhere. In Dalmarnock, and in Shettleston you can walk between these yards in a minute or two and literally, wade through your gene pool.

Extended kindreds stretch across generations and the expanse of the yards themselves. As the Backcauseway drawing shows, families live close together, sharing the work and the load and keeping warm in the winter. It is a good place to keep an eye on the old and provide a safe space for the young. For kids, a ground is an open-air playground devoid of roads – the only dangerous area being the gate, where cars and snack bars crunch in and out on the gravel.

Most grounds are arranged in a rough semicircle or rectangle where each chalet, wagon or trailer can look out into the centre. It forms a protective huddle that at its best, offer mutual support and visual communication while retaining some privacy. Many of the Glasgow yards started to become more permanent because older Showpeople were living longer and retiring, and so benefitted from the friendly eyes that would notice if they had not swept their steps one day. Old fairs closed, or were bowdlerised by local authorities that saw them as a mere nuisance, roads got better, young travellers got jobs or found they could make a living in Glasgow. The combination of such factors meant it became practical to retain a more or less solid base to travel out from, rather than living on the road most of the year. As roads improved, it has become feasible to ‘run out’ to many fairs with just a small caravan – a ‘wee trailer’ as they are called – and leave a large mobile home, with many more comforts, not least a television that will always get a signal, waiting for the family to return.

A Living Archive

The more settled lifestyle of the last forty or so years means you can find some strange stuff here, if you know where to look. Melvin Thomas owns a yard in Dalmarnock where he keeps 20 or so sheds full of unwanted fairground equipment families no longer have a use for. It is a museum in waiting, a fascinating testament to Melvin’s enthusiasm and dedication. A self-described eccentric, Melvin is a quiet man of mixed Gypsy, Glaswegian and Native American heritage with intense blue eyes, who acts as an unofficial Smithsonian of our fairground heritage. He is the opposite of most travellers who will ruthlessly dispose of unneeded or unprofitable equipment (generally the same thing). Melvin will take it off their hands, love it and carefully restore it. He had originally planned to operate an old time fair in the mould of Carters, but this has long been abandoned and he now collects for no ostensible reason other than his love of old fairground equipment, and the substantial arts and crafts invested in making and decorating it.  Even a glimpse into one lorry reveals amazing variety – peep shows, small helicopters for children to ride, rows of wooden clown heads with mouth open to catch a ball and disgorge a prize, fibreglass dolphins, illuminated signs from penny arcades, miniature carousel horses…this is an inventory of just one corner. Melvin’s tools, paints and spare parts are kept in a huge shed that hosts two lorries and an old wagon, one of them already restored, the others a work in progress.

Some of Melvin’s pieces are over 100 years old. If Glasgow City Council had any sense, they’d be helping him to preserve these treasures and have them seen by a wider audience – the Riverside Museum, based as it is on the Kelvin Hall Museum, the previous site of Glasgow Corporation’s circus and winter carnival was held, would be perfect. For now, they sit in his 20 or so sheds and lorries, an amazing archive of popular entertainment as experienced in Scotland and the British isles over the past 100 years.

Not far away from Melvin are the workshops of Clayton and Jackson Reeves, makers of fairground rides. The two brothers are largely self-taught engineers, schooled through maintaining and improving their family’s rides. Now they make machines – everything from a kiddie’s roundabout to a fold-out practice ski-slope – full time. I went down in 2008 to watch some of the making of the ski slope in fact – an amazing piece of work based entirely on a paper model shown them by their client. They seem to work from instinct and imagination as much as from blueprints, and this shows in their work. Their handiwork, all hot pinks, Disney archetypes and fibreglass textures, interrupt the red brick and asphalt greys of the yard and the road outside.

Many others continue to follow more traditional patterns, leaving their yards sometime in March only to reappear in Kirkcaldy or Hawick or Banff throughout the year. A few go further than that; consortia of families pay a fee to take their fairs to Ireland, Germany or Bahrain.  Others go on the aforementioned ‘short runs’, events within a hundred mile or so that last only a day, everything from a Children’s Gala to a corporate hire. The lifestyle is becoming more diverse, the means of making a living within the broad church of ‘The Shows’ is constantly changing and always pressured by forces largely beyond their control. But for now, Glasgow is still the place to return to, when winter comes.

Comments (4)

  1. Jane McArdle

    It’s wonderful to read this well written article that’s reflects our culture and the influence of the “shows” on Glasgow.
    It will be a sad reflection on Glasgow if they continue to squeeze out the showman because in these actions they are squeezing the life out of the showman and a culture that helps makes Glasgow.

  2. Kim Smith

    Very informative thank you for posting. I am the grand daughter of show people and have been trying to find more information regarding their lives, do you have any advice where to begin.

    • Mitch Miller

      Hi Kim

      There are quite a few showmen groups on facebook that you could join that share news, photographs and stories about the community. This could be a good start. There is a National Fairground Archive in Sheffield, although if it’s Scottish or Irish showpeople you’re interested in, they don’t have much! I don’t know if you are in or visit Glasgow at all, but we have a display I helped to curate there that gives quite a lot of info. Also, I made this documentary on Scottish Showpeople a couple of years ago you can watch here – https://vimeo.com/120465830

      And always happy to answer questions myself! Drop me a line at glasgowdialectogram@gmail.com

      All the best
      Mitch

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